We in the West have shocked ourselves into waking consciousness, awakened by the frightening ring or beep of an alarm built into our clocks.
How do other cultures wake up? For thousands of years, many peoples have paid great attention to how we are awakened and have affirmed the importance of the gentle return of the spirit to the body of the sleeper. As the spirit or shadow wanders far abroad, it requires time to return to the body.
What can we learn from other cultures to make our own awakening routine more harmonious?
For the Xingu people of central Brazil, there is a danger in waking a person too quickly, for the spirit, which was traveling in distant regions, might not have time to return and the sleeper might die.
Rosie Plummer, a Paiute Indian, stated a strong sentiment of her people when she declared that when someone is sleeping, it is a danger to awaken him suddenly: “His soul may be away doing something. It may be far away. If the person is suddenly awakened, his soul does not get back. He will lose his mind. He will get sick and if a shaman does not doctor very soon, he will die.”
So was the belief for many American Indian peoples. The Havasupai, for instance, also felt that there is a delicate threat between the nighttime traveling soul and the body of the dreamer and that any sudden awakening might not allow the soul time enough to return to the body.
For the Maori people of New Zealand, their understanding of the spirit and body in sleep also affects their social customs. They consider it a breach of manners to awaken a guest from sleep. If some necessity demands that they do, however, then it will be done gradually. The host first calls in a soft, low tone, gradually increasing in volume until the visitor is awake. Once again, the spirit must have time to return to its physical base.
Thousands of miles away from New Zealand, in central India, the Kol follow the same etiquette of waking guests, and for the same reason. In Australia, the Murngin people don’t awaken someone except as a last resort, and then it is down slowly and with great care and gentleness so that the soul will have time to return to the body. Heeding this principle of the gentle awakening are the new “Zen” alarm clocks that start with low soft sounds that slowly increase in intensity.
In Africa, the Azande and Masai peoples both caution against waking a person suddenly, for much the same reason we have learned – an aggressive awakening may lead to death. In Japan, too, the Ainu call for waking people slowly to allow the soul and body to reuinite, as do the Bororo Indians of Brazil, the Toradja of the central Celebes, and the Andaman Islanders of the Pacific.
Among the vast numbers of people who believe in gentle awakening, there is a deep consideration for the sleeper and his welfare. Of course, we know clearly that people awaken suddenly every day and do not die. But to dismiss the experiences of innumerable other civilizations out of hand would be to miss the point. If we look broadly at the fact that in the industrialized world millions of people awaken every day to the sound of alarm clocks every day, we may find truths that we can embrace. Perhaps something does die with sudden awakening. Perhaps the dream spirit dies. We violate our dreaming consciousness as we crash into waking life. Little wonder that so many people have difficulty remembering their dreams. It is as if we receive a morning shock treatment that pulls us violently into our daily lives.
Perhaps, ultimately, it is the delicate bridge between our waking and dreaming minds that is damaged a little bit more every morning.